Behind the Sestina: Michael Costello on “A Series”

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Michael Costello was born in Buffalo in 1976 and was educated at SUNY Fredonia before receiving an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. Since then he has published in numerous print and online journals, including The Del Sol Review, MiPo, eye-rhyme, The Columbia Poetry Review, La Petite Zine, Tarpaulin Sky, and Essays & Fictions; he was also included in The Best American Poetry 2004. Currently, Michael lives and works in Cambridge, MA.

We go Behind the Sestina with Costello to discuss his sestina “A Series,” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina? 
I discovered the sestina in 1994 when I was 17, my junior year of high school. I was reading Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology and reading through Harry Mathews’ entry I came across “Histoire.” There are a couple of other sestinas in that anthology, too; I just happened to luck out that I cracked the spine to the one on page 206, first.

To be honest, I didn’t know the form it was written in was called a sestina. I was intrigued by that poem. It was unlike anything I had ever read, for many reasons, and the structure of repeating end words was definitely one of them. It wasn’t until some years later in an undergraduate writing workshop that I formally learned what a sestina is. It was in that workshop that I first attempted to write a sestina. It wasn’t very good. But I fell in love with the challenge of writing one that was.

What’s your favorite sestina?
“Histoire” remains one of my favorites but I’m also a huge fan of many of the ones in Jim and Dave Defeat the Masked Man by James Cummins and David Lehman, especially one simply titled “Sestina,” on page 28, whose end-words are all poets’ names, and another called “The 39 Steps.”

A more recent favorite is Terrance Hayes’ “Liner Notes for an Imaginary Playlist,” from Lighthead. I would call it a homophonic sestina and that most appropriately weds to idea of songs on a playlist. It’s a great poem.

We’re curious about your sestina-writing life. Have you written other sestinas, either before this one or since?
“A Series” was only the second or third time I tried writing a sestina. Every so often, I try again and I’ve experimented with prose sestinas too, but nothing else has been quite as successful.

What draws you to returning?
Sestinas are fun and maddening and appeal to an obsessive and structurally focused mind. Which I have. Writing sestinas holds the same kind of pleasures that writing in any formal way does but its constraints exercise a different set of rhetorical muscles than say a sonnet, haiku, villanelle, or pantoum.

How about your choice of end-words? 
I was reading Difference & Repetition by Gilles Deleuze, a French Philosopher; Andy Warhol, Poetry, and Gossip in the 1960s by Reva Wolf; What Are Masterpieces by Gertrude Stein; The Philosophy of Andy Warhol by Andy Warhol; several other complementary texts; and On the Level Everyday and The Sonnets by Ted Berrigan; and I had been filling up notebooks with passages, quotes, and my own personal reflections on everything I was studying and one such quote I had written down from Deleuze was “Repetition changes nothing, difference makes itself.” That phrase resonated with me and seeing that it was six words clicked in my head with the sestina form and seemed the perfect vehicle for my own exploration of difference in repetition.

Did you develop a working idea about that for your sestina?
The form clicked with the phrase: all six words, and the idea within it. I immediately saw how the form fit the content.

This is an essayistic or aphoristic sestina, with so many nuggets of ideas (“Between differ and different is the difference”). Is that a correct assessment? 
Very much so. I set about writing the sestina by extracting the fragments and sentences from my notes that included any of the six words. I had been experimenting with appropriation and collage in my writing and my experiments seemed to come together in this piece. Once the first draft was completed I was able to reorder, rewrite, or replace lines until it was finished.

The presence of Andy Warhol is strong: there’s so many iconic subjects of his: Brillo Box, Mao, Marilyn, an electric chair, the cows that appeared in his wallpaper series. Are you a big Warhol fan, or did the ideas you had in the poem suited that subject matter, or something else entirely?
Andy Warhol is a favorite artist of mine. At the time I wrote “A Series” I was conducting my own personal critical study of him. I was taking a closer look at his artistic techniques and visual rhetoric and exploring writers with whom he shared similar sensibilities. Using his work as a visual anchor  just made sense. In a way this is an ekphrastic essay.

What voice is being quoted in the poem? I imagine it to be of some docent’s?
There are several. For me, this was a conversation with the artists, writers, philosophers, and critics, mentioned above and probably one or two others who aren’t.

Finally, the first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—who would you dedicate your sestina to? 
To my dearest friends and family who take turns reminding me of the truth behind this piece. And to my nephew, Lukas: welcome to the world.

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